The morning of Friday, February 21 dawned bright and clear in the rolling boreal forest of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, east of Fairbanks, Alaska. The temperature topped out at eight below zero.
Earlier in the week, a family of 11 wolves known as the Lost Creek pack loped beyond the preserve’s boundaries as they followed the Fortymile caribou herd, their main food source. Unfortunately for the wolves, the caribou herd’s proximity to a road — a rarity in Alaska — also makes it an important food source for local subsistence villages, and for families from Fairbanks and beyond. So to help ensure food security, the state’s governor-appointed Board of Game bolsters the herd’s numbers by killing some of the wolves that prey on caribou calving grounds.
Board chairman Ted Spraker insists that he doesn't hate wolves. “I think wolves are the most exciting animals in Alaska,” he says. Still, Spraker is bound by a 1994 state law requiring Alaska to manage wildlife to support abundant moose, caribou and deer populations for subsistence hunting, often at the expense of predators.
Under former Gov. Tony Knowles — the state’s only Democratic governor since 1990 — predator control efforts like aerial wolf kills effectively ceased. In some places, ungulate populations dropped. “Subsistence opportunities were in shambles,” Spraker recalls. “People in rural parts of the state were suffering.” So in the dozen years since Knowles left office, Alaska has played catch-up, leading to what some conservationists call “a war on wolves and bears” and creating tension between state and federal wildlife officials.
Recently predator control has grown especially lethal. In parts of the state, the Board of Game has authorized the use of artificial light to rouse black bears from their dens and shoot them as they emerge (“spotlighting”), as well as baiting brown bears, increasing bag limits and lengthening the hunting season to months when wolves and coyotes are raising pups. The idea, says Spraker, is to go all-out now so programs can be scaled-back or eliminated once ungulate populations are back up in the future.
Joan Frankevich, Alaska program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, doesn’t particularly care for such practices, but she accepts that the Board has the right to do what it will on Alaska’s 105 million acres of state land. What she does not accept, however, is that the Board has also tried to implement similar regulations in Alaska’s 22 million acres of national preserves. In Alaska, national preserves are dually managed by the National Park Service and state agencies, with the state largely assuming responsibility for wildlife management and hunting. For decades, the arrangement worked smoothly.
“Up until five or ten years ago, state sport hunting regulations and the Park Service aligned quite well,” says John Quinley, Alaska spokesman for the National Park Service. “We adopt or agree with over 90 percent of their game management regulations.”
Over the past few years, though, Alaska’s ramped-up predator control has led to friction. The Park Service has asked the state more than 60 times since 2001 to exclude practices like spotlighting from national preserves, and the Board has rejected their requests. When Alaska released its 2014 hunting regulations, they were once again the same for national preserves as for state land. And so once again, the Park Service is overriding state law by banning controversial hunting methods and longer seasons in Alaska’s national preserves, an action that’s escalated tensions in a region already known for anti-federal sentiment.
“We’re at loggerheads in some places,” says Jeff Rasic, NPS Chief of Resources for Yukon-Charley Rivers,“(Their) heavy-handed approach goes contrary to our management.”
Rasic notes that in some instances, the agencies collaborate well. But he explains that his agency’s “prime directive” is to encourage natural abundance for all animals — to “let the natural balance and fluctuation of species happen.” That’s at odds with state requirements prioritizing caribou and moose, but ultimately, Rasic says he answers to Congress, not state lawmakers.
Spraker sees it differently. Alaska is a world apart from Yellowstone and Yosemite, he argues, and the Park Service’s obligations there are also different. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, passed by Congress in 1980, gives wildlife management authority to the state and forces the government to consider subsistence needs when working in Alaska, he adds. Thus, the Park Service is bound by two conflicting sets of rules — and Spraker thinks they’re following the wrong ones.
So this February, when the 11 wolves in the Lost Creek pack crossed the invisible line of Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, state officials took aim from a helicopter and gunned them down. The practice isn’t uncommon — last year, 36 wolves that denned in the preserve, or half the population, were killed.
For the Park Service, though, the most recent incident was especially grievous: The Lost Creek pack included two wolves that had been collared as part of a decades-long study to learn more about wolf behavior. “The state used to have an agreement that (they) wouldn’t take collared wolves,” says Frankevich, who has lived in Alaska for 30 years. Now, she says, it happens with regularity. “They just wiped out 20 years of ecological study.”
So while the federal government spends $100,000 a year to study wolves in Yukon-Charley, the state spends roughly the same amount to kill them. Sometimes, the same helicopter pilots employed by the Park Service to help dart and collar the wolves are then hired by the state to go back and shuttle officials to kill them.
The losses rub Rasic the wrong way, but he takes them in stride. “I’ve very purposefully tried to hold back from anthropomorphizing wolves,” he says. “We get painted as these romantic animals lovers, and that misses the point. Yukon-Charley was created to protect wildlife habitat. It’s really hard to accomplish that when the goals of the state and federal agencies differ so greatly.”
Editor's Note: Keep an eye out this spring for further coverage in HCN's print edition, of predator control on federal lands in Alaska. Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.